A trio of sages explore absurdity and chase enlightenment in this Buddhist-themed picaresque from Goldstein.
Feng Kan, the first sage presented in Goldstein’s debut novel, begins his life slow-witted and without prospects for a wife or livelihood. A monk takes pity on the boy and offers to train him in the ways of monastic life. Struggling at first, Feng Kan eventually excels, performing very mundane tasks and eventually becoming the master of the monastery’s granary. After his struggles, Feng Kan finds enlightenment and goes on to train two pupils, Shih Te, the foundling of the book’s title, and Han Shan. The first half of the book concerns this trio’s mystical encounters—discoursing with demons, taming wild tigers and teaching Buddhist sutras—as well as the dialogues shared among the monks. The conversations are riddled with absurdities, the kind of intentionally illogical banter that later—in Japan—will find expression in the koans of Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately, the charm of these interactions is diminished significantly by the book’s wordy prose and the numerous digressions that explain esoteric Chinese healing practices, the structure of the human mind in Ch’an orthodoxy and the proper way to teach a wild tiger to be peaceful. All of these explanations strive for consistency with Ch’an precepts, but Goldstein misses the mark, smothering the freedom of Ch’an absurdity and apparent silliness with an overeager zeal for detail. The second half of the book contains translations of Han Shan’s poems, or those attributed to him, and these work more effectively than the earlier prose. The translator has a tin ear, but the translations are clear and sincere. More than 200 brush paintings are also included in the text, and they add vibrancy to the poems.
An exploration of enlightened absurdity that loses much of its appeal in the overinclusion of details.